<strong>July 19, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/specials/preview/2005/teams/afcw/sandiego_chargers.html">Sports Illustrated</a>
Great weather, fine beaches and a top-notch NFL team, too? Man, those San Diego fans have all the luck.
The Chargers, after years of wipeouts, finally rode a successful wave in the AFC West. They turned a 4-12 record on its nose last season and won their first divisional title since 1994. "We have arrived," Chargers general manager A. J. Smith says.
So after the departure from eight straight non-winning seasons, what do the Bolts do for an encore? The Chargers seem primed to build on their recent stunning success, returning every starter and buoyed by a confidence seen in these parts as often as snow.
But it won't be easy. The Chargers play seven games against playoff teams, and their road slate has five contests three times zones away. Both Super Bowl participants, the Patriots and Eagles, will host San Diego.
But the Chargers remain convinced that their franchise is on the rise. With three Pro Bowlers in running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Antonio Gates, and a defense that is among the best at stopping the run, they might be right.
Brees went from being toast to the toast of the town in a reversal of fortune seldom seen in the NFL. He brushed off the acquisition of rookie Philip Rivers with one of the best seasons ever by a Chargers quarterback. Brees was retained as the team's franchise player, though the club still believes Rivers is the future. But the present shows Brees eager to duplicate his stellar season in which he was the NFL's third-highest rated quarterback while throwing for 27 TDs against seven INTs. Rivers will assume the backup role, although he no longer has to leapfrog veteran Doug Flutie -- who was released -- to find the field. But the plan is for Brees to take every snap, unless he's injured or reverts to his 2003 form, which had the Chargers desperately seeking an alternative going into the 2004 season.
Tomlinson was slowed by a groin injury for the majority of the season. All he did was rush for 1,335 yards, 17 touchdowns and say "aloha" to his second Pro Bowl invitation. This season should see Tomlinson return to health, but likely not the same workload he had before last year. With the emergence of Gates and a receiving corps bolstered by Keenan McCardell, the Chargers don't have to call Tomlinson's number every time they need yards. That being said, Tomlinson can be even more effective as defenses can no longer jam the box to stop the run. The offense has evolved into a more versatile attack, and that translates into the shifty Tomlinson having even more running room.
Tomlinson's backups, Jesse Chatman and Michael Turner, are more than adequate. And opening holes for all three will again be Lorenzo Neal, the ageless fullback whose tenacity is never questioned.
Gates became the team's go-to guy in the passing game, as his 13 scoring receptions set an NFL mark for a tight end. Those suggesting his production was the result of being an unknown are underestimating his skills. With his soft hands, precise routes and ability to use his body to shield defenders, this former Kent State basketball player is no fluke on the football field.
While the Chargers are ecstatic about Gates, this unit is among the few with a red flag flapping. McCardell was a great pickup late last year, but he's 35 years old. Eric Parker showed some flash but concerns over his size can't be ignored. Reche Caldwell, to date a second-round bust, had a good start last year before a serious knee injury wrecked his season; it's tough to rely on his comeback.
The Chargers drafted Vincent Jackson from Division I-AA Northern Colorado, but time will tell how he makes that transition.
Gone are the "my name is" tags this bunch wore, when the Chargers trotted out five new starters from the previous season opener. What makes this unit's success more stunning is it included rookies in Nick Hardwick (center) and Shane Olivea (right tackle). And Toniu Fonoti (left guard) was a second-year starter.
Still, the line played with enough efficiency to allow the Chargers' offense to finish with a top 10 ranking. Brees seldom was forced from the pocket, and the running holes were big enough for Tomlinson to navigate with relative ease.
The biggest offseason loss here might be line coach Hudson Houck. He's regarded as one of the NFL's top assistants, and he deserved credit for the line's play. But the Chargers decided he wasn't worth the market rate, and he was replaced by former Chargers line coach Carl Mauck.
Jamal Williams didn't get much notice, but he should have. He was the anchor in a 3-4 alignment that was stout against the run. Williams had 32 tackles and led the line with four sacks. The middle was fortified with the drafting of Northwestern tackle Luis Castillo; he could eventually replace Williams, who is in the last year of his contract.
Right end Igor Olshansky developed into an adequate run-stopper although he remains a work in progress who doesn't play on passing downs. Jacques Cesaire, DeQuincy Scott and Adrian Dingle saw plenty of action, but none had much of an impact rushing the passer.
Where the Chargers' tepid pass rush would have been minus Steve Foley is tough to imagine. The Chargers had but 29 sacks -- third-fewest in the NFL -- and 10 came from Foley. He resurrected his career after arriving as a mid-priced free agent, embracing coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 alignment with a vengeance.
Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey manned the middle of the field. Edwards had another good season, recording 151 tackles and adding five interceptions. Godfrey's statistics weren't as gaudy, but he managed 87 tackles and two sacks.
This unit could receive a boost from Shawne Merriman, the 12th overall selection out of Maryland. He'll play opposite Foley on passing downs and could also be placed in a down position along the line. The Chargers have big plans for Merriman, and he'll be given every opportunity to showcase his skills.
The Chargers swear it's unfair to blame the secondary for the team's pass defense rating of No. 31. Instead, they point to the front's lack of a pass rush.
What's also obvious is that Quentin Jammer hasn't developed into the Pro Bowl-type shutdown corner the team envisioned. And his physical style is hardly bolstered by the NFL cracking down on contact from defensive backs.
Drayton Florence has lapped Sammy Davis - a former first-round pick -- and he should start opposite Jammer. Florence has the mindset to be a dependable corner, although consistency remains a concern. Davis will push Florence in a bid to regain his old job, but he'll likely be the nickel back.
Terrence Kiel continues to grow as a strong safety, and he had some impressive numbers in his first year as a starter. But veteran free safety Jerry Wilson's job isn't as safe. The team signed free agent Bhawoh Jue, and while Jue disappointed Green Bay with his play, he'll compete for Wilson's position.
Kicker Nate Kaeding's body of work was outstanding as a rookie; he connected on 20-of-25 of his field goal attempts. But what stands out is his missed 40-yarder in the overtime playoff loss to the Jets. Many are watching to see how he rebounds. Punter Mike Scifres had a Pro Bowl caliber season -- he was a first alternate. His net average of 38.4 yards led the AFC, and no one in the conference topped his 29 punts downed inside the 20.
With returner Tim Dwight cut, the Chargers will look to Darren Sproles, who made people miss in the Big 12. The Chargers are confident he can do it in the NFL.
This is a team on the upswing. Many of the skill players are in their prime -- Tomlinson, Brees and Gates - and they are led by a head coach who knows how to win; Schottenheimer is eighth on the NFL's all-time list for victories.
That being said, a demanding schedule awaits a team that went but 1-5 against playoff squads last season. And if the pass defense isn't enhanced by the pass rush, the Chargers will have difficulty staying among the elites.
But considering the acumen with which Smith is building this club, the Chargers are positioned to be an AFC West contender for years. While they will be hard-pressed to match last year's 12-4 mark, another trip to the playoffs should come the Chargers' way.